A perfect weekend for me almost always includes a visit to an art gallery, history museum, or a traveling exhibit of some sort. However, trying to drag my family and most friends to museums is next to impossible. Encouraging young adults, adolescents, and elementary children to visit museums and galleries is exhausting, and more than often, I feel defeated.
Having worked in museums, helping with education, travel, conference, and communication, I have personally witnessed the changes museums have undertaken to become an attraction for all. Museums today are now discovering new and exciting ways to attract not just the academic historian or grandfather-history-buff. Museums are now a place for everyone to come and learn in an innovative and fun way while remaining educational and factual.
POLIN Museum, a museum about the “Thousand-Year History of the Polish Jews,” is the perfect example of changing the way we view museums. The architecture, historical placement, the eight core exhibitions, and the services available have made POLIN one of the most visited museums of Europe since it opened in 2013. And with its impressive display of history, it is no wonder that it was awarded the European Museum of the Year for 2016!
“Polin” is Hebrew for “rest here.” The name of the museum was chosen in reference to the legend of the arrival of the first Jews in Poland, where they were told they could finally rest from a life of near perpetual exile. On the glass panels that cover the building, “Polin” is written in Hebrew and Latin letters.
Constructed by a Finnish architectural office Lahdelma & Mahlamäki, POLIN Museum is built in the heart of the once thriving Jewish district, which then became the Warsaw Ghetto under Nazi occupation. The museum faces the Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes.
The central hall is breathtaking. The empty space symbolizes the cracks in the history of the Polish Jews as well as references Moses leading the Jews from Egypt and crossing the Red Sea, as written in Exodus. The bridge connecting the two halves of the building symbolizes the connection of the past to the present. The amount of sunlight that shines throughout the main hall is a reminder that history is never-ending and that the POLIN Museum is a museum of life.
he Core Exhibition is made up of eight galleries that expand from the legend of the arrival of Jews into Poland through the Middle Ages into the 19th century, the social, political, and religious diversity of Polish Jews, pre-WWII, the Holocaust, post-war, and into contemporary times. The Core Exhibition is a narrative, telling the 1000-year history through artifacts, interactive installations, videos, life-size figures, sounds, words, models, and more. From the beginning of the exhibit until the very last room, POLIN offers an educational but exciting presentation of history.
POLIN’s First Encounters gallery introduces visitors to fascinating explorers and adventurers such as Ibrahim Ibn Yakub, a Jewish diplomat who recorded his travels throughout Europe in his now well-known memoir. Meet Yakub, King Kazimierz the Great, and others as you find out why Poland became known as “Paradisus Iudaeorum,” a Jewish paradise.
The Into the Country gallery takes you into the wars that raged through Poland during the seventeenth century. Listen to battles being fought, swords clashing, and the spreading of wildfire as you learn of the attacks on Polish Jews. The main focus of this gallery, however, is to present the daily life of Jews by bringing you into an exhibit designed to resemble the Jewish Marketplace and Synagogue. A church with videos, inscriptions, and pews also tell the story of Jewish-Christian relations during this time.
Visiting POLIN is never a stale experience. As you go from gallery to gallery, you find yourself standing next to life-sized figures of Jews in the dress of that gallery’s time period. Scenes change on the walls as you walk through the past. Videos, recordings, and sounds have you stopping to listen and interact. Sit at the desk of a Yiddish poet, wait for the “train” at the station, become educated in the classroom where rabbis taught. Open cabinets, pull out drawers, touch things! POLIN Museum’s narrative history is brought to life for each visitor.
During the interwar period, life for Polish Jews began to change. Although still strong in their Jewish nationalism, the younger, educated Jews became more assimilated into Polish culture. It was this time that was often referred to as the second “Golden Age.” However, as European relations began to shift and anti-Semitism began to rise, Polish Jews found themselves on the brink of terror. Step back into time and take a walk through the On the Jewish Street, 1918 – 1939 gallery, and discover what life was like before WWII.
The Holocaust, 1939 – 1945 gallery is unlike any other museum’s Holocaust exhibit. See how the now German-occupied country changed the lives of millions of Polish Jews. Read how the Nazis humiliated Jews. Hear bombs as they are being dropped. Look at the list of hundreds of ghettos established throughout Poland. Live in the Warsaw Ghetto. Witness the heroic acts of the Polish Underground Army and their attempt to overthrow Nazi reign through the Warsaw Uprising. Read the last written words of Jewish children. Touch the map of the various concentration and extermination camps, and see where what ghetto fed into what camp. Learn the names of those who survived and remember those who perished. Step into the slightly shaky exhibit that resembles the cattle cars that took Jews from the ghettos to places like Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Be transported from the comfort of the present into the dangers of the past.
Once the war ended and concentration camps had been liberated, only about 300,000 Polish Jews (out of more than 3 million) survived. Following the war, times were just as uncertain as Polish Jews returned to the ruined and destroyed cities of Poland. During the Stalin-era and Soviet occupation, the cities were rebuilt, but Poland was still not free. Explore the last and final gallery, Postwar Years, 1944 to Present, to see how Poland reclaimed its freedom and has developed into what it is today. Following the exhibit, reflect on what you have seen and learned throughout the Core Exhibitions, and think, ask, and discuss how the identity and memory of Polish Jews are relevant today.
But POLIN Museum offers more than just galleries. Temporary and traveling exhibits come and go at the museum. The Education Center offers educational programs and classes for students, small groups, and the general public. Walking tours of the former Warsaw Ghetto with a museum guide are available. The Resource Center’s staff members offer assistance in genealogical, historical, and local research. Workshops, panels, and lectures are offered throughout the year. A specialized library is located at the museum, and is dedicated to preserving and sharing the history of Polish Jews. The gift shop is open for visitors to purchase a book on a subject matter from the exhibits; expand your mind and learn more on your own! And if you find yourself hungry or needing a coffee, the Besamim Restaurant in the main hall offers a variety of Jewish dishes, Kosher ready-to-eat meals, international cuisine as well as local Polish favorites. Even while eating, you can keep learning and experiencing!
There will always be a need for museums that hold hundreds upon hundreds of artifacts, displaying them behind ropes or in glass exhibits. Those museums are historic, important, and established with their galleries full of artifacts from the past. Because of their highly acclaimed status, such museums will always be relevant as well as visited.
However, the way we are studying history is changing. And museums are changing with it. As the world becomes more technically advanced, more reliant on social media, more dependent on the “wow factor,” museums are changing too, to teach us in more innovative, interactive, and imaginative ways.
POLIN Museum does an excellent job of presenting its material in a way that can captivate nearly anyone – despite their education status, political affiliation, religious views, or economic background. Gone are the days where fieldtrips to the museum are dreaded by the students and chaperones alike.
History is cool, and so are museums.